Halemaumau Crater Overlook

There are few places on planet Earth where casual visitors can come face to face with a real, active volcano. And in Hawaii, the sight of such an immensely destructive force is tempered by the realization that it’s also life-creating: not one part of this idyllic island chain cast smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – not its world famous beaches, nor its stunning green mountains or its dense, broad-leafed jungle –  would exist today without the Hawaii Volcanoes at the National Park. It has created everything in sight, churned up from the bottom of the ocean over millennia; cooling lava slowly building on itself in a process that can only be measured in geological time.

On Hawaii’s Big Island, standing atop a cliff inside Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, this almost supernatural force is on full display: below spans the gaping maw of Halemaumau Crater, an almost mile-wide pit crater at the summit of Kilauea Volcano. This is the home of Pele, the goddess of fire and volcanoes according to ancient Hawaiian religion. In one corner of the enormous crack in the earth, a steady plume of grey smoke can be seen wafting up the crater walls, making its way past the clear line on the horizon that is the rim and rising up to mingle with the low-hanging puffy white clouds making their own climb over the summit.

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The air is ripe with sulfur stink, and the terraced folds of land in the distance seem to sparkle in the sunlight as their patches of silvery white residue catch the light. The ground at the foot of the crater is cracked and parched, with a patchwork of distinct sinkholes out of which more wisps of grey smoke and white steam escape. Lava cliffs far off on the opposite side of the crater – cliffs that must be hundreds of feet high and very imposing in real life – look like tiny horizontal squiggles on a watercolor painting. The view from this overlook can be overwhelming to behold sometimes; the size and scope of the land stretched out below in such dramatic relief is enough to induce a slight vertigo, like peering into a miniature Grand Canyon.

But this is also the sight that draws more visitors to the island in search of than any other. Typical travel guidebook lists of the most popular sightseeing destinations in the state usually rattle off the following: Pearl Harbor and USS Arizona Memorial on the island of Oahu is first, the absolutely stunning, world-famous Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park on the island of Kauai is second, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on Big Island’s eastern flanks is third. This makes it, statistically and culturally speaking, the most popular place on the island by far, and a destination that on typical years draws over a million visitors to that very spot, standing at the cliffside taking in the majesty of the shining, terraced land and smelling the sulfur fumes that clouds of billowing smoke bring up from below.

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Halemaumau Crater Overlook is just one destination among the park’s many, too. After all, the place is huge: nearly one-third of a million acres all told, with many different areas open to the public for hiking, sightseeing, and learning about geology and volcanism, in addition to some options for shopping, dining, and lodging. There’s even the historic Volcano Art Center, found in a refurbished plantation-style cabin chocked full of stunning original pieces made by Big Island-based craftspeople, most of which involve motifs like volcanoes, lava, fire and the goddess Pele.

Popular destinations in the park outside of Halemaumau include the eerie underground tunnel of Thurston Lava Tube, the strange lunar landscape of Devastation Trail, the expansive hike circumnavigating the crater known as Crater Rim Road, and the Kilauea Iki Trail, which takes hikers on a 3.5-mile roundtrip jaunt down to the crater floor and its surreal, other-worldly dried lava lake which only a few decades ago was liquid. Even today, falling rain finds its way into still-hot vents in the earth along the trail and boils into steam, sending occasional white clouds of hot, wet air across the path and shrouding it in fog.

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At The Summit: A Rollercoaster of Activity Since 2018

Big Island visitors who came to the overlook before May, 2018, saw a completely different crater. Back then, Halemaumau Overlook featured the world-class Jagger Museum, full of educational installations explaining the geological, cultural and spiritual history of Kilauea’s summit, next to a semicircle observation platform that jutted out over the cliff’s edge and gave visitors a spectacular view of the lava lake. Groups of people would form at this platform on moonless nights to see the hellish red glow of bubbling lava emanating from the crater as it lit up the sky. There were drinking fountains and well-manicured concrete walkways and a large parking lot.

The massive 2018 Lower Puna Eruption drastically changed this landscape forever; for months there were constant earthquakes, and the crater’s lava reservoir drained away, creating a sort of sinkhole into which the surrounding cliffs buckled and fell. By the end of the eruption that August, the crater had doubled in size to nearly a mile wide, swallowed up pieces of parking lot and condemned the museum to an uncertain fate after being deemed unsafe for further public use.

For more than two years after the eruption, the crater sat dormant, filling with rainwater and developing a green pond of stagnant, mineral-rich water that geologists observed to be around 160 degrees Fahrenheit and slowly rising. Lava returned on the night of December 20th, 2020, when lava vents sprouted out of the side of the crater once more, quickly boiling off the lake. Ever since that night, there’s been sustained eruption activity at the summit, and that familiar red glow lights up the sky at night again.

Today, the Overlook area is rugged. Plastic parking cones draped with caution tape have taken the place of sturdy metal fence, and parched paths of red lava cinders have largely replaced the concrete sidewalks of old. Without a viewing platform, visitors simply stand along the cliffside and peer past bluffs of golden grass and stubby ohia trees down into the void, which now takes up nearly the entire horizon.

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Thankfully, many of the hiking trails with trailheads starting at the Overlook are intact, continuing its old reputation for being the centralized meeting point for groups embarking on trips like Kilauea Iki Trail and Crater Rim Road. Many of the steam vents made it through the eruption unscathed, too, and there’s a particular stretch of trail that takes hikers across a landscape littered with them.

How To Get There:

The entrance station to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located roughly 30 miles south of Hilo along Big Island’s Highway 11. The building itself is made of handsomely mortared lava rock, and is staffed by friendly National Parks workers who take admission fees: $30 for private vehicles, $25 for motorcycles and $15 for individuals/bicycles, for passes that are valid for seven days from purchase.

Just a few hundred feet past the entrance on the right is Kilauea Visitor Center featuring environmental, historical and cultural exhibits which almost make up for the loss of Jagger Museum. Across the road is Volcano House, an elegantly curated historic guesthouse and three-star hotel with attached restaurant. Halemaumau Crater Overlook is just two more miles up the road, passing by other sightseeing destinations like Sulfur Banks, Steaming Bluff, Kilauea Military Camp, Uwekahuna Bluff and Steam Vents.

Besides Volcano House, there are few amenities inside the park itself, so it’s best to stock up on supplies in towns like Hilo, Pahala, Volcano or Keaau. The park is open 24 hours a day and sunset viewing at the crater is highly popular, but those visitors should keep in mind that Kilauea Volcano’s summit is at more than 4000 feet elevation and can get cold in the early mornings and evenings, especially in winter months when tourism on the island sees its high season. 

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Hikers should be sure to bring plenty of fluids since potable water isn’t available at the Overlook, and to keep in mind that hiking through parched black lavafield during full-sun afternoons is like hiking across the surface of an oven. Wearing sun protection, sturdy shoes and loose, lightweight baggy clothing is advisable while exploring the different sections of the park, as is following all posted signs and placards about ground instability, rockfall hazards and poisonous volcanic gasses.

Each year there are needless injuries – some of them serious – suffered by hapless visitors who were simply at the volcano doing the wrong thing in the wrong place. The landscape around the crater is inherently rugged and treacherous, full of sharp lava rocks, blistering steam and acres of shadeless, unforgiving cracked ground, but that’s also arguably what draws so many people to it; to see raw, rugged and newly-created Earth.

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